Worst Year Ever

I was amused to see that Jay Mathews, longtime Washington Post education columnist, thinks this will be the ‘worst year ever.’ So bad that he thinks maybe we ought to ask public school principals and teachers if they have any bright ideas about how to do school—what do we have to lose? They might have some creative solutions! #sarcasm

The best charter schools have made good use of their freedom from old school district rules and biases. Why shouldn’t teachers and principals at regular public schools have a chance to do that, at least during this crisis?

At least during this crisis—and then, of course, we’ll go back to ignoring their wisdom and treating them like cheap, interchangeable cogs in a dysfunctional machine.

I have been reading Mr. Mathews for two decades. I understand that he represents the old guard in educational journalism—the folks who are actually employed by mainstream news outlets, rather than the motley and generally unpaid crew of folks writing from the trenches. The people who work in schools every day.

The point of this blog is not to evaluate how accurately journalists report on truths about teaching and learning vs. those who rely on call-Randi-then-phone-it-in columns. There are plenty of classroom-based bloggers, after all, who cannot see beyond their school, their students, and their particular needs.

Still–there are lots of people writing about the crisis around returning to schools now, and that’s good, no matter who they are  We need to hear all the voices, including those whose crazy idea just might work for someone, somewhere, even if it is a non-starter for you.

So here is my idea: What if this were the best year ever?

More specifically, what if this were the year that we–students, teachers, parents—got to try everything we ever considered doing? What if you could design your own teaching-learning path and your own outcomes? Freed from the constraints of rigid curricular standards, conventional M-F schedules and tests designed to sort, rank, reward and punish—what if you got to choose what David Berliner calls ‘good learning’?

Nearly every argument against this stems from our cast-in-concrete ideas of what school is supposed to be: You are supposed to be reading in first grade. You are supposed to learn to ‘socialize’ in school. You are supposed to learn a tiny bit about multiple, discrete subjects every day, instead of spending a whole day (or week—or month) using only one or two disciplines. You are supposed to be ready for college or a career at the end of the thirteen-year race.

You are supposed to be able to focus, seated, indoors for hours at a time, without frequent breaks to stretch, use the restroom or talk to other people. Or daydream. Or read something interesting. Or doodle, look out the window or immerse yourself in a topic, skill or project that is of great interest to you.

In fact, in some schools, it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in—we have your content and your benchmarks all laid out for you. It’s aligned with the test that will tell us what classes you’ll take next year, and the year after that. Will the pandemic be over then?

Perhaps this feels as if I have gone all Summerhill, (the ‘radical’ book all education majors dissected in the 1970s). As if I’m a fan of unschooling–or one of those people who babble about the factory model and how school stifles their child’s imagination. How classes are boring in person and even worse online.

Not so. In fact, I’m a great fan of public education, of kids adapting to a schedule and learning to get along in groups. I think most schools do a credible job of teaching kids what they need to know—and some teachers and schools do a spectacular job of preparing kids for the world to come. I also think (and have gotten into trouble for saying out loud) that the brightest children amuse themselves and are seldom bored in school, at home or sitting in front of a computer. It’s the kids who rely on structure, attention and directions from an adult who are bored, who use their intelligence to be compliant or competitive, rather than creative.

So let’s use the resources that public education controls—and get creative, for once.

The plans for fall have been repeatedly divided—by media and policy-making spokespersons—into three buckets: Regular, face to face school. Hybrid models. Online instruction. None of these models is universally viable.*

More to the point, all of them are based on the idea that we need to tread water and make school as close as possible to what it was in 2019, while waiting for the virus to go away. The US Department of Education’s vow to not grant testing waivers for 2020-21 is not based on their deep desire to see whether kids have ‘fallen behind’ so they can get ‘caught up.’ The entire K-12 system now requires test scores as our product, the gears and levers used to control and shame public education and, where possible, replace it with privatized, for-profit models (including charters).

If tests were to go away, permanently, then schools could start designing their own curricula, tailored to the children they serve.  If benchmarks were to go away, we could return to meeting children where they are and moving them forward. If standards were to become optional guideposts, rather than rigid requirements—the kind that mandate flunking children who struggle to read when they’re eight years old –we might even find them useful, especially novice teachers, beginning to build a practice toolkit.

If this sounds like happy talk, it’s pretty much what we had 30 years ago. It’s hard to remember, but solving educational problems used to take place at the district and state level, and testing was something states did to make sure tax dollars were being wisely spent. In many states, schools that posted low scores were given compensatory funding and technical assistance, and deficits were assumed to be related to poverty.

That was then. And now, we’re headed into the ‘worst year ever’—but only if you accept that what we’ve been doing for the past two decades has been a good use of our resources.

It could also be the best year ever. This won’t happen without a political overhaul and a cataclysmic upheaval in practice. But it may be the best opportunity we have.

* This is a personal gripe, but positioning the return-to-school choices for fall as bifurcated—in-person vs. online—is short-sighted. I live in a place where on-line schooling is close to impossible—a huge rural district (168 square miles) where high-speed internet connectivity is iffy at best. My DSL line (our only real choice) operates at less than one mbps, upload and download—not enough to run a Zoom classroom, upload photos and videos, or send an emailed assignment with a large attachment and expect it to arrive in a few minutes. Buses with wifi hot-spots and free devices aren’t going to suffice.

Please don’t tell me that this is a local government problem. I understand that. But my local government, despite 10 years’ worth of being urged to deal with the problem, is reluctant to act, saying that they haven’t heard complaints, and don’t want to spoil the ‘rural character’ of the county. By the time the local government acts, the school year may well be over.

We were one of the cooperative districts formed by the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, when many of our farmers were not connected to electricity. The reason then is the same as now: too expensive, not enough profit in connecting farms and wide-apart homes. So yes. It’s political. This is what will happen to our postal service, too, if Trump gets his way.

Kids who can’t go to school online need creativity, too.

3 Comments

  1. Jay, who’s a super nice man, became the education reporting superstar with his coverage of Jaime Escalante and the story that became “Stand and Deliver.” Not that I doubt that there was validity to that story, but when Escalante changed school districts and couldn’t even remotely replicate his triumph (taking a classroom of low-income students to success in AP calculus, over the obstacle of racist officials who refuse to believe in their high scores), you had to wonder if Jay may have puffed up the story JUST a bit, abetted by overly credulous, insufficiently badass editors. It’s a delicate question to ask. Anyway, the simplistic story is his metier (except that he became a Michelle Rhee skeptic after his editor wife oversaw exposes of test cheating under Rhee, which slid off Rhee’s press-applied Teflon).

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    1. I had only personal exchange with Jay Mathews. It was about a dozen years ago, and I was one of a group of teachers in one of those teacher leadership nonprofit projects, working on a white paper about alternative compensation. Jay called me and we had what I thought was a nice, information-rich conversation, where I made lots of points about how we could use teacher pay to change teacher recruiting, teacher creativity, custom-tailored curriculum for schools and districts, and mentoring. We spoke for nearly a half-hour, and I could hear his (or somebody’s) computer keys clicking away.

      At the very end, he asked ‘Do you belong to a teacher union?’ When I said that I did, he asked which state/local union. And when the story came out he was highly skeptical about the idea that teachers–mere teachers–could craft a policy proposal for shifting compensation away from the traditional steps and lanes. He also mentioned not only my name, but the union I belonged to, and his estimation that they wouldn’t appreciate my colluding with an outside group about their work.

      Because my name and my school district’s name were in the WaPo, Mathews’ story got picked up by local and regional newspapers, and I became the teacher who betrayed her union by plotting behind their back to take down the traditional salary schedule. So yeah–the simplistic story that you just can’t let go of.

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